A Kenilworth cake baker on a mission

December 26, 2013

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few years after Gertrude Troyer’s family gave up its horse and buggy, she hopped in her brother’s 1960 Pontiac Bonneville headed for Kenilworth. They didn’t know how to get there, so they just drove to the White House and eventually found a pay phone.

She was a 21-year-old country girl from Plain City, Ohio, on her way to a short stint volunteering for her Mennonite church in an impoverished Washington neighborhood.

Forty-six years later, she’s still here, standing on her tippytoes at 5:20 a.m., using a butter knife to help slide a plastic bucket of sugar from the shelf above her counter to begin work on a rush of cake orders for Christmas.

Gertie, as everyone calls her, has made it here as a missionary, a summer camp organizer and a construction office custodian. She has taken abuse from surly teens, has prayed with relatives of the murdered and now helps support herself running a makeshift cake-baking business in the brick home she shares with one of the girls she first mentored decades ago.

Forty-six years ago, Gertrude Troyer left her family in Ohio to help run a camp for inner city D.C. youth. Now the Mennonite missionary's cakes and pies bless the tables of families in her community during the holiday season. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Wearing a black veil over pulled-back gray hair, a red cotton cape dress that covers her from neck to ankles, and Asics running shoes, Troyer tackles her morning’s baking agenda — one strawberry supreme, three red velvet, a poundcake — with the same buoyant relentlessness she has brought to the rest of her life in the city.

“Most people know that’s not the norm. Most people don’t just leave their home towns and go someplace else almost completely opposite, and stay,” said her housemate, Cynthia Sharpe, 58, who was just 11 and living in the Kenilworth Courts housing project when Troyer arrived.

At first, Sharpe said she didn’t see Troyer “as an individual,” just as one of the friendly missionaries who came to help out. Another quizzical neighborhood kid was Vincent Wright Jr., now an officer with the D.C. police.

“I was like, ‘These are some homely-looking folks,’ ” Wright recalls. “That dress makes them look like, what’s that the girl on ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ Melissa Gilbert or something?”

But that faceless distance didn’t last.

“Some people kind of take to you,” Wright said. “I just got to know her.”

Thrifty roots

In the kitchen, Gertie is a machine.

She grabs eggs in her right hand and cracks them with a sharp knock against the egg in her left. Like some just-in-time manufacturing guru, she moves fast: batter in, rotate pan, cakes out, repeat. Flour gets measured to the hundredth of a pound on her digital scale.

“It’s the way I’ve been doing it for years, and it comes out right,” said Troyer, 68.

She grew up Amish and learned to bake without electricity in her mother’s kitchen. By age 15, her father reluctantly followed local church leaders as they shifted toward a less conservative religious tradition as Mennonites. Although they still aspired to live as Jesus would, they did so with cars and electric lights.

Troyer’s frugal roots remain. She uses an empty 25-pound Domino sugar sack as a trash bag, and scrapes the paddle of her stand mixer with her fingers to get off every bit of batter, then scrapes her fingers with the spatula to get the last few drops.

She’s still smarting over the time, years ago, when a pair of red velvets went bad. She used cake flour, not self-rising.

They were dry and flat, and went to the birds.

“I was so beat out I did that,” she said, before translating the German-influenced holdover phrase for the uninitiated. “I was disgusted with myself. That’s exactly what it means.”

Then she burst out in the playful, wholehearted laugh that has melted tough kids, skeptical adults and longtime customers alike.

“Who likes to mess up a cake?” she said.

Winning them over
A year after she arrived, Washington descended into riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Troyer and the others in the small Fellowship Haven church told visiting Mennonites to leave.

“The city was in an uproar,” she said. “We didn’t want to have more people of our color than we needed.”

A grocery store down the road was looted, and some in the predominantly black neighborhood offered her protection. But she didn’t fear.

Race has been a presence over the years, but not a defining one. One uncle worried Troyer might marry a black man. And some in Kenilworth recoiled at the white outsider.

Patricia Roy grew up in the Kenilworth projects, and Troyer soon began to win her over. Troyer took her and Sharpe to Ohio. The dark nights terrified Roy, but she found peace in the hayloft. “We would be sitting on it with our feet hanging, just up there in the barn,” Roy said.

But years later in the District, Roy slid into a state of deep insecurity and negativity, she said, and she lashed out at Troyer, the closest authority figure around. “I could be mean when I wanted to be,” she said. “I wished she would go back home to Ohio.”

The Kenilworth area, tucked between the Anacostia Freeway to the east and the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens to the west, has a rough history. Poverty rates have soared, the number of teenage pregnancies is high and birth weights remain low.

Troyer witnessed terrible choices and tragic circumstances. One boy who often came around the church killed himself, apparently after a bad drug trip. A young woman who studied the Bible with them was killed by “her supposed boyfriend,” Troyer said. Yet another was missing for days before she was found dead on a staircase.

When it came to Roy, Troyer wouldn’t budge.

“Nope, she’s got some spunk to her,” Roy said. She kept reaching out, trying to connect. “She didn’t retaliate back. She just kept loving me until I couldn’t resist it anymore.”

‘Don’t want to go big’

Troyer wants her neighbors to be able to afford her creations, just like her mother, who sewed and sold Amish men’s suits for $4 apiece.

She charges $22 for the chocolate butter and $24 for the coconut pineapple. A two-pound fruitcake, sort of a cross between walnut bread and pecan pie, goes for $21. White potato pie sells for $12. More than 90 cakes were stacked up in the basement for Christmas.

“This is an operation and a half, believe you me, and the cakes are the bomb,” said Patricia Ferguson, who stopped in to pick up a poundcake for her son’s 36th birthday. “This is a blessing.”

Also sort of a mixed blessing. Troyer loves communing with customers. But she doesn’t want an employee, and she can do only so much.

“I don’t want to go big,” she said. “I don’t want to become a millionaire. I like living.”

Over the decades, missionaries wed and left, and the Mennonite elders eventually decided to pull out. Troyer had suitors within the church, but she never married. “Gertie, she’s the last of the Mohicans,” said Wright, the D.C. police officer.

There are only a handful of members now, including the three now-grown children — Sharpe, Wright and Roy — who became Troyer’s friends.

They talked with a Pennsylvania bishop about bringing in new blood, maybe a pastor and more missionaries, but there were too many strings. The church preaches pacifism and wanted Wright to leave the police force. The bishop also wanted Sharpe, a fervent Redskins fan, to lose her television, which some view as an intrusion into God’s kingdom.

Troyer agrees with the bishop’s stance on church teachings. But when there’s a disconnect between purity and the people who have become her family, she’s chosen to live by example rather than being doctrinaire.

“I’ve watched her over the years just give it her all,” said Sharpe, who does the same.

She and Roy became public school teachers. Wright mentors kids and counsels offenders on the difference between jailhouse conversions and lasting ones. And they all run a Mennonite summer camp in Pennsylvania where needy Washington area youths can taste old-school values.

Troyer moved in with Sharpe in the 1990s to help her care for her dying mother, who suffered from diabetes. She stayed on, and rented out her own home at low rates to families who needed a break. Troyer would quietly save some of each month’s rent to return to departing families as down payments on homes of their own.

“God, Mom, and then Gertie — that’s where a lot of my strength came from,” Sharpe said.

Concerned for children

Troyer’s family, including 12 brothers and sisters, was touched with tragedy before she left Ohio. Her 8-year-old brother, Joseph, was driving a tractor out to water the calves when he was thrown off and killed.

Years later, a church newsletter describing terrible living conditions for some District children brought Troyer to tears.

“I said to the Lord: ‘What then? What do you want from me?’ ” Troyer recalled. “Just like that, it wasn’t audible, but it was very, very clear to me — D.C. This place where the children were came into my thinking and my mind and my spirit.”

Just before 7 a.m., before the sun is up, Troyer taps red velvet layers out of their pans and places them on cooling racks, then gets in her beat-up Toyota Camry and heads for a neighborhood track for her daily three-mile walk.

She’s always busy, with another lap, another cake, another person to help along his or her path.

As she walked, a glorious, magenta-saturated sunrise rose over her waking city.

“That’s what people miss when they get up late. They miss the beautiful morning,” she said. “You’ve got to capture it when it’s pretty. They don’t last long.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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